The Coexistence of ‘Umran and the Improvement Epic of Settler Societies


James Lawson


In different ways, former ‘white settler colonies’ have been engaged over nearly twenty years in a re-examination and critique of indigenous-settler relations within their own borders. Like Australia, New Zealand, and arguably countries of the southern cone of South America, Canada has seen its intellectual community engage in a far-reaching re-valorization of indigenous voices in law, history, and land-management policies, over against fundamentally imperialist collective identities and univocally agro-industrial conceptions of development. Whether this means a positive re-assertion of a founding settler-indigenous divide as an act of de-colonization (Alfred 2005), or a re-interpretation of pre-Victoria colonial history as fundamentally métis rather than Anglo-Celtic (Saul 2008), Canadian scholarship has increasingly distanced itself from classic modernist ideas of sedentary agriculture and industry, state-centred national unity, secular rationalism, and constant development/improvement as the necessary hallmarks of ‘civilization’. This move towards a multi-voiced future faces a determined counter-tendency (Flanagan 2000; Widdowson and Howard 2008) that would seek to reaffirm a classic Canadian development epic. This countertendency would be a return to a singular conception of agro-industrial progress as the measure of the good life. It calls on those who oppose it to articulate clearly a new political-economic condition. This condition would allow for the reality of deep-seated industrialization and urbanization as one mode of modernity without consigning other collectivities to the status of ‘primitive’.  The work of Ibn Khaldûn (Ibn Khaldûn 1967), though the product of a very different civilizational context, provides fundamental building blocks for imagining the coexistence of ‘umran without a ‘clash of civilizations’ or the denigration of the ‘primitive’.


Jamie Lawson earned his doctoral degree in Political Science from York University, and has researched renewable resource policy and politics in Alabama, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia.  His interests include the implications of forest policy for indigenous-settler relations, worker health and safety, the exercise of power in raw material export chains, and the use of historical narrative as a method in the social sciences.Lawson is currently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria.

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